Read the Fine Print

I often get calls from contractors in trouble. Usually, it is because they find some requirement in a contract that they have overlooked, and usually, that requirement is going to cost them a lot of money to meet. Sometimes, I get calls from network users in the middle of a project when they have a problem, either with the project or the contractor, and need clarification.

Commonly, they ask about testing and, specifically, optical time-domain reflectometers (OTDRs). Many project documents require OTDR testing when it is either unnecessary or inappropriate (e.g., on premises cables where OTDR testing is required instead of insertion loss testing or on cables that are too short for the OTDR to output useful data).

I’ve also seen paperwork requiring a specific brand or type of component that is the wrong choice for the project. In one case in Canada, for example, a customer specified a connector type to be installed on a cellular tower that could not withstand the temperature extremes where it was to be installed. Another case involved installing outside-plant cable indoors, where it was both the wrong cable type and not rated for inside use.

Contractors know what I’m going to say next: “you must read the fine print.” Furthermore, most network owners or users are not experts on fiber optic cabling network design and installation, so they depend on others to help them design the cable plant and specify components. Often, the people they rely on have a vested interest in having their products specified for the project.

To design and build a proper fiber optic cable plant, it’s important to start right at the beginning, with a scope of work (SOW) document. The SOW defines the project, including the objectives, all the background information that all parties involved need, and the purview of the work expected from all parties, including the contractor. It’s here that the technical requirements are spelled out, the tasks are defined and the criteria for completion and acceptance should be delineated. The contractor should find all the requirements for the installation in the SOW, including testing and documentation.

Since the SOW defines the project, project designers can often find estimates of time and cost to help evaluate later proposals submitted during the quotation process. Sometimes, the first stage of procurement is a request for proposal (RFP), in which contractors are asked to comment on the SOW but are not requested to submit competitive bids. Sometimes, the designers use RFPs to evaluate their project, looking for feedback and alternative suggestions on how to make it better and/or less costly.

For the contractor, an RFP is a chance to evaluate—without the pressure of competitive bidding—a project for feasibility and whether it fits his or her company’s expertise and capabilities. If the contractor is interested in the project, it’s also the time to provide feedback. Always read the fine print because, if there are problems with the paperwork, that would be the time to tell the customer, not later when it’s finalized.

At this stage, knowledgeable people should provide inputs on design, component choices and installation procedures. Inaccurate designs, bad component choices and improper requirements (such as OTDR tests on 50-foot-long cables) should be flagged and discussed with the designers. It’s also a time to evaluate the potential customer’s knowledge and way of working.

By the time a project gets to the request for quote stage, inputs from all interested parties, including interested contractors and salespeople, should have been evaluated and used to create a final document. If there were problems with the SOW or RFP that were not addressed in the final documents, ignore them at your own risk, as they may indicate the customer is not knowledgeable or is subject to other influences. You may be accountable for the customer’s mistakes.

So what happens if you win the bid? Before you sign a contract, ensure all the paperwork is exactly as it was when you bid the job with no final “gotchas.” Double-check to ensure the scope of the work, design, component choices, test requirements and documentation have not changed from what you bid on before you sign that document.

By this time, you may be saying, “I know that!” But I have answered many calls from frustrated contractors and users because of some part of a contract that was in dispute. I’ve also gotten calls from lawyers on the same subject, and I know whenever they are involved, it’s going to be messy—and expensive!

HAYES is a VDV writer and educator and the president of The Fiber Optic Association. Find him at

Stay Informed Join our Newsletter

Having trouble finding time to sit down with the latest issue of
ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR? Don't worry, we'll come to you.